Tale as old as time? Questionable. Love story sure to make you wax nostalgic for your ‘90s childhood? A definite possibility.
Bill Condon’s live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1991 classic, Beauty and the Beast, was a success even before it hit theaters earlier this month, with a trailer that garnered over 127.6 million views in the first 24 hours. But despite its record-breaking box office haul, the film has more going for it than sleek animation and talking teacups: good old fashioned Disney magic.
We all know the story, French beauty conveniently named Belle finds herself trapped in hairy beast’s enchanted castle after said beast captures her unwitting father. Belle trades dad’s freedom for her own and subsequently embarks on a love/hate relationship with Beast, the character formerly known as Prince. Musically inclined household antiques abound, along with books, wolves and a healthy dose of falling rose petals. Not to spoil the ending, but it wraps up happily for Belle and Beast, even if gun-toting, muscle-flexing village jock Gaston wasn’t a big fan of their love story. Spoiler alert: Gaston goes the way of those rose petals.
The 2017 version of the film is much the same, with a few odds and ends tacked on to fill in those pesky plot holes—aka fill in, scatter seeds and plant flowers on what was formerly a gopher-sized divot—but I digress. This time around Belle is played by Emma Watson of Hermione Granger-fame, a fitting choice for Watson, a book-lover in life and in fiction. It appears Hermione never revealed one extra bit of magic during her time in the wizarding world: the girl can sing, too.
Though Watson’s voice is strong throughout all of Belle’s alternatingly frolicking and forlorn numbers—most notably in the film’s opening scene where she has a Maria von Trapp moment spinning in the hills outside her “poor provincial town”—her portrayal of the bookish-yet-spirited heroine is a bit lacking on the spirited end. She fits the role perfectly, but maybe that’s part of the problem. We get our Belle, but we want a little of that Watson feistiness back, too.
Or maybe it’s not her, it’s them.
Beauty and the Beast’s cast is stellar, to say the least. You’ve got Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as Beast (though he’s hardly recognizable amidst all that CGI fur), Luke Evans as Gaston, Josh Gad as Gaston’s clingy hanger-on LeFou and Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice. Not to mention the enchanted ensemble of Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Stanley Tucci (the newest addition, Maestro Cadenza) and Broadway star Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe). Oh, and Gandalf (Ian McKellan) as Cogsworth the grandfather clock. Enough said.
With that castle-full of A-listers, it’s no wonder Watson’s demure Belle tends to get lost among the other characters’ Disney-approved bravado. What doesn’t get lost? Disney bravado itself.
Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos diverge minimally from the 1991 script, and the modern Beauty and the Beast is better for it. Audiences have enough to take in with all the animated fangs flying around, we don’t need Belle’s ball gown to suddenly turn from yellow to pink just for the sake of novelty. Speaking of that famous ball scene, it’s just as magical this time around, “Tale as Old as Time” sung by Mrs. Potts and all.
Some would call the filmmakers’ strict loyalty to the original uncreative, others nostalgically sweet. Take your pick. Ultimately it might depend on how much you enjoyed your childhood, Disney-fied or otherwise.
Other beloved scenes and musical numbers remain— “Be Our Guest” arguably bigger and better than ever—while three new songs join the Beauty and the Beast canon. “Evermore,” sung by Stevens at his moodiest Beast best, alone holds its own among the originals. The others, simply filler, like those notorious plot holes.
One major hole from the original: Belle’s lack of a mother, not a problem in this version. Instead of glossing over the sad fact, this round Belle and Beast use a time-traveling book to unearth the story Belle’s father would never tell. Couldn’t let that Potter magic go down without a fight, apparently. This introduces a whole new dimension to the storyline where a simple “she died of tuberculosis” could have sufficed.
But to the film’s credit, instances where the mechanics show behind the magic are few and far between. And when the credits roll happy tears will probably be falling, from overtired kids and oversentimental parents alike (just ask my mom).
It’s Beauty and the Beast, tale as old as time, and all that. Even if this version chooses not to stray too far from the original, it’s like Mrs. Potts sings in that iconic song: “Bittersweet and strange, finding you can change, learning you were wrong.”
If Belle and co. are wrong for staying true to Disney tradition, I don’t want to be right.